“And the Lord said to Abram: Go forth out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and out of thy father’s house, and come into the land which I shall show thee.”
Tonight’s Easter Vigil marks my fifteenth year as a Catholic, and approximately my seventeenth as a properly baptized Christian. On that night in 2003 I received the chrism of Confirmation and the consecrated Body of Christ for the first time in a church dedicated to St. Clement of Rome. After Mass, we celebrated in the rectory with a six-pack of local brew and I wondered greatly at what the future would have in store.
I have been thinking for some time about how to describe the change of Catholic conversion. The particulars of the change are different for every convert and catechumen, but it always involves a kind of quantum leap from a lower to a higher state. It is a movement from the outer darkness to the light of hospitality, from ignorance to knowledge, from the wasteland to the land flowing with milk and honey, from death to life.
But it does not always appear to be so. The unending stream of scandals of all sorts is enough to focus the mind on the so-called human element of the Church to the detriment of the divine. There is enough sin and stupidity among Catholics both cleric and lay to fill a library of unhappy memoirs. If there is one thing a cradle Catholic cannot bear it is a convert pointing out the emperor’s public nudity. A large part of the spiritual life is learning how to tolerate the imperfections of others while still retaining the capacity for righteous indignation when it is appropriate. It might be appropriate less often than we sometimes think.
With apologies to Mr. Plato: The kingdom of Heaven is likened unto a cave, where the inhabitants are prisoners chained to a rock and made watch an endless play of shadows on the wall which they mistake for reality; some are freed from their chains and make their way into the upper sunlit world, which they come to understand is The Real. The allegory of the cave is misappropriated by the “brights” and “wokes” of the world, and perhaps also by myself to describe entry into the Church, but to my mind it stands close to the parables of Christ in its vivacity and depth. For most Protestants, the bread and wine are a mere shadow-play of symbols; for the Catholic it is really and truly the Body and Blood. For the ancient pagans, goodness and truth were invisible abstractions; for us they are the incarnate God-Man. For the atheist, familial community is an existential choice of companions; for us it is the Mystical Body of Christ, bound together as a fellowship of adopted sons.
It is also likened unto a homeless man brought to live in a great mansion, or a child raised by beasts brought into human society, or a man born blind given his sight. The allegorical representations of la vita nuova are as endless as creation itself. (The medieval allegorists were fond of animal symbolism in their theology of the sacraments and spiritual life, but I will not torment our readers with those at the moment.)
Or consider the symbol of a dead man returned to life. The dead haunts the land of the living like a ghost, and indeed in the final analysis he is the shadow-play on the wall that believes it is real. This shade pretends to be alive and thinks it knows many things, but it is not until it is restored to its body with all its senses, and its powers of memory and will, that it understands how insubstantial it had been. The downside of being alive is that one can smell unpleasant things and feel pain, but that is a small price to pay for the benefits of bodily life. He has transformed from a shadow-play to the Real Thing that the shadow-play faintly mimicked. He may or may not be ultimately worthy of this transformation, but only time will tell.
The words of Holy Writ in the book long known as the Liber Ecclesiasticus are appropriate for this night when we repeat our baptismal promises: “Never come to him with a heart that hesitates…. Submissive be thy heart, and ready to bear all…. Firm let thy feet be set on the path the Lord has chosen for thee.” The path of the Catholic Faith is the path of life, and though the Church here on earth be fickle, freckled, its pied beauty still points irresistibly to the unspotted Beauty Celestial and Eternal.
“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you.”
A happy Easter to all.